For years, it was one of those idealistic proposals that always looked so good on paper but never quite materialized: Tear down the housing
projects and replace them with low density neighborhoods where people of different income levels would live side by side in comfort, safety, and harmony.
Memphis is a giant step closer to turning that vision into a reality in a grassy, colorful project called College Park taking shape south of
downtown between LeMoyne Owen College and Elmwood Cemetery.
This is the new face of public housing, says Robert Lipscomb, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA). If you closed
your eyes and someone dropped you here you would think you were in the middle of HarborTown.
To build College Park, MHA demolished 824 units in the LeMoyne Gardens housing project. MHA then leased the site to LeMoyne Redevelopment and
Edgewood Management to develop it, lease and manage the apartments, and sell the single-family homes.
The transformation is startling. The projects were dirty, crowded, run down and home to a gang called the LeMoyne Gardens Mafia. After MHA closed
them and relocated the residents and bulldozed the buildings, the site stood empty for a few years, with the rolling terrain and stately oak trees looking something like a golf course. The narrow streets and parking lots were replaced with a handsome apartment building for seniors that faces the front of the campus across the street. Behind the 68-unit apartment building is what looks like a suburban subdivision of winding streets, new sidewalks, street lights, underground utilities, acres of sod, and heavy landscaping.
The new two-story houses and apartments -- a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, and quads -- are brightly colored with white front porches,
individual yards, and common areas. There are a few homes partly built with brick but most are covered with siding.
When the project is completed a year from now, there will be 341 apartments and 70 homes. MHA and the developers hope the renters will become
home-owners. The amount of rent or the cost of the home is based on the occupant's income.
Katherine Ashford, for instance, a 68-year-old woman who lives in the seniors apartment building, pays $150 a month for her one-bedroom unit.
I love it, says Ashford, who grew up in LeMoyne Gardens years ago and graduated from nearby Booker T. Washington High School. She has all new
appliances plus good bus service and a National Bank of Commerce branch bank
and a police station practically next door. The partially reconstructed Stax Studio, part of the Soulsville project, is two blocks south.
The developers are new faces, too, and probably not what most people would expect to find doing a big project in the inner city.
The key players in LeMoyne Redevelopment LLC are Molly Jones and Kimberly Franks, a pair of young working mothers who first joined forces three years ago. Jones, 31, a graduate of St. Agnes and the University of Memphis and mother of three children, is the project manager and handles the
financial side. Franks, 33, a graduate of Germantown High School and State Tech and mother of five, is assistant project manager in charge of construction.
College Park is a Hope VI project similar to the much larger Hope VI development planned to replace Hurt Village in North Memphis near St. Jude Children s Research Hospital and The Pyramid. MHA secured the key piece of financing, a $47 million federal grant.
MHA has done a phenomenal job in putting together all the community support necessary to do this project, says Jones.
Jones hopes the smaller apartments and homes will appeal to LeMoyne Owens graduates, families, and former residents of the housing project.
Current and former MHA residents have priority, providing they and their children can pass a criminal background check and a credit check. Already there have been some tough calls. One
family was initially disqualified because a teenaged son had a bad credit record because his parents had put their utilities in his name when he was just 13.
That story had a happy ending but others may not be so lucky. Developers are determined to avoid the old public housing stigma of poverty and crime. Jones describes the qualifications as stringent, and units cannot be subleased and the homes cannot have absentee owners.
I want to move the people who are renting into my homes, Jones says.
There will be a grand opening ceremony for College Park Monday at 10 a.m. For anyone familiar with the painful history of public housing, this bold step in a new direction has to be seen to be appreciated.